Companies that pay dividends not only put money in your pocket, but their stocks tend to outperform over the long term. In fact, companies that consistently grew their payout produced a 9.6% total annual return over a 40-year period versus just a 1.6% return from non-payers, according to a study by Ned Davis Research. Given that significant outperformance, it makes sense to add some dividend growth stocks to your portfolio. While there are lots of good options out there, we think the three top ones to buy now are Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), M.D.C Holdings (NYSE:MDC), and Antero Midstream Partners (NYSE:AM).  

Put your nest egg in housing (or put a house in your nest)

Rich Smith (M.D.C. Holdings): It's 2018, and would you believe it? Nearly a decade after the housing market imploded, there's once again a deficit of houses on the market. This is bad news for homebuyers, with the National Association of Realtors predicting housing prices will surge 5.5% in 2018, alongside climbing mortgage rates -- but it's good news for investors in M.D.C. Holdings.

Growing stacks of coins on soil inside a house.

Image source: Getty Images.

MDC, which focuses its homebuilding operations on the East and West coasts, doesn't pay the world's biggest dividend. Still, at 2.7%, MDC's divvy is 35% above the average 2% yield on the S&P 500. Importantly, MDC currently pays out only a small portion of its annual profits -- just 33% -- in the form of dividends. That means both that today's dividend yield is pretty secure, and the prospects of MDC being able to raise its dividend over time are pretty great.

Growing profits will require growing earnings, of course. Luckily, MDC has that covered as well. Analysts surveyed by S&P Global Market Intelligence predict profits will grow 18.5% annually at MDC over the next five years. Given that MDC stock only costs about 12.4 times earnings, that growth rate also gives MDC a very attractive price-to-earnings ratio -- about 0.67.

I think that makes MDC not just a top dividend stock to buy, but a good value stock as well.

Blistering growth

Matt DiLallo (Antero Midstream Partners): With a 4.5%-yielding dividend, Antero Midstream Partners offers investors an attractive payout that's built on about as firm a foundation as you'll find. For starters, the pipeline and processing company gets 100% of its revenue from long-term fee-based contracts and only pays out about 77% of its cash flow to support the payout, which is conservative for an MLP. Further, it has a low leverage ratio that's currently about half the level of other MLPs. 

That said, as good as Antero Midstream's payout is today, it will be even better in the future. That's because the company expects to increase it by 28% to 30% through 2020 and another 20% in both 2021 and 2022. Fueling that growth will be high return expansion projects in support of its fast-growing parent

To put Antero's distribution growth into perspective, the company's yield is on pace to expand to a jaw-dropping 12.9% by 2022 for investors who buy today. That ability to collect a sky-high future yield, supported by sound financial metrics, makes it a top dividend stock to consider owning for the long-haul.

A hand putting money from rising  coin stacks into a jar.

Image source: Getty Images.

Silicon Valley's cash machine

Travis Hoium (Apple): Great dividend stocks are ultimately about the cash generation of an underlying business and no company generates more cash than Apple. You can see below that Apple is generating over $50 billion a year in free cash flow and shows no signs of stopping. That means its current dividend of $0.63 per share quarterly, a yield of 1.4%, has a lot of potential room to grow. 

AAPL Free Cash Flow (TTM) Chart

AAPL Free Cash Flow (TTM) data by YCharts

Not only does Apple pay a dividend, it's spending billions each year to buy back stock on the open market. Between the beginning of fiscal 2013 and the end of fiscal 2017, the company bought back $166.0 billion of stock on its way to $210 billion of buybacks through 2019. 

What makes this a sustainable dividend with lots of room to grow is Apple's underlying business. The company makes some of the most popular smartphones, tablets, and watches in the world and has an ecosystem that keeps its customers coming back for more and more devices. Unless someone topples Apple's dominant position, which I don't see happening anytime soon, Apple's dividend is one of the best on the market. 

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.